The invitation was bordered in flags, promising a service of inspiration and patriotism. It was around 1980, during the height of the Reagan campaign, and I was religion editor of The Birmingham News. I decided to check it out. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one showing up at the fundamentalist Baptist church on Southside. I parked my white VW beetle with the dented door a couple of blocks away and quickly realized that a twenty-something dude with longish hair and a beard didn’t exactly fade into this crowd where every man seemed to have a crew cut and the women wore pleated dresses that hit midway between the knee and ankle.
I decided to leave my long reporter’s notebook in my pocket and keep the lowest possible profile. All over the church grounds, people were handing out little American flags, and kids were waving them everywhere. A 40ish man carrying a big Bible walked in the direction of a few kids, stooped his head slightly and opened his eyes wider than I thought was possible. He pointed to them. The kids stopped playing and looked at him. He smiled and crooked his finger and turned toward the church door. Without a word, the kids lined up and headed into the church.
Nobody knew I was coming, and I had decided in advance that I would just observe. Groups sometimes act differently if they know a reporter’s in the house, and I wanted to see this just the way it would normally occur. They had a special guest preacher – a war veteran evangelist described as a dynamic winner of souls. The rally opened with a prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s when I made my big mistake. A kid had been talking during the prayer, and a tall lady stepped over in front of him and scrunched her eyebrows, never removing her hand from over her heart. The feigned look of terror on the child’s face struck me as funny, and I chuckled.
Recovering quickly, I felt relieved that nobody seemed to have noticed. After the National Anthem and My Country ‘Tis of Thee, the pastor introduced the evangelist, who rolled out in a wheelchair. Both legs had been blown off in the jungles of Vietnam. Somebody handed him a microphone, but he had such a booming voice, he didn’t need it. “God Bless America!” he shouted.
Then he shocked me by lifting himself out of the chair and flopping onto the floor of the stage, where he flipped over a couple more times and launched into his sermon on the threat of Communism. “You won’t hear the truth in the schools or see it on TV, because they’re afraid to tell you. They went to all these fancy universities where atheist Marxist professors filled their heads with garbage. But we know the truth, and it’s right here,” he said, scooting across the stage the floor to the edge of the platform and lifting a thick Bible.
The church erupted in cheers and shouts of “Amen!”
Then his voice got quieter, and he said, “Too many people have no respect for the flag. You know, while we were pledging allegiance, I looked over in this crowd tonight and a young man was laughing. Laughing during the Pledge of Allegiance!” He peered straight at me, and eyes throughout the room followed his.
He moved on to other topics, like Communist infiltration of schools and the threat of Russian missile superiority. One man was still watching me. I didn’t want to have the conversations that were likely to follow once the service ended, and honestly I didn’t know if there would be threats, prayers for my soul or both. I slipped out the door. Nobody knew my name, and nobody had even said hello, so I took the easy way out.
By the time the service ended, I was long gone. I didn’t even write a story about it.
Until now, it seemed a little too raw.